Teaching and Ethics: A Teacher’s Obligations

Ethics in education has broad implications and applications – but I want to begin by addressing a single aspect: What should a teacher’s obligations be to his/her students?

What brings this on is my experience with a large percentage of students who have an attitude of apathy toward school. And I’m confronted with the questions every day: “How far do I go to make them successful?”; “What is the scope of my job?”.

Sure, a Jaime Escalante can turn around a program – but at what cost? The movie Stand and Deliver (I know, it might not be accurate) portrayed his family suffering as a result of his work. Do I want to be a Jaime Escalante? Do I want to give up my evenings, my Saturdays, my summers? And did he turn around students who didn’t want to achieve? Or did he turn around those who originally couldn’t get the help they needed?

Which really leads to MY ultimate question: “Why am I a teacher in the first place?”

My answer: “I love teaching, I love math, and I love teaching math. I love working with kids and I love the challenge of explaining a difficult and/or elegant concept effectively.”

Increasingly, however, I find that my answer does not suit me for the typical high school setting. More often, high school teachers need to be a parent, counselor, cheerleader, parole officer, bouncer, or psychiatrist more than they actually need to teach. I’m not even (intentionally) exaggerating.

Case #1:

The administration hands down a decree that no student is to be permitted in class without a visible ID card. For the most part, I see the reason behind this (to be saved for another time) but the unintended consequence on one of my classes is interesting.

This class is offered for those students who barely passed their previous math class (Algebra) – so many, if not all, had D’s or even failed Algebra. There are a wide variety of reasons for lack of success in Algebra, but here the most common is lack of effort. So I’ve got a class that consists largely of students who don’t care. Then, I start enforcing the ID card rule and *blam* 6-10 students stop showing up every day. Not only that, but they’re the same ones that cause 95% of my problems. So what do I do? Do I call home and complain? Do I search the school for them? Do I report them to the office? Or do I let it slide, knowing that my other students are benefiting from the absence?

There’s my ethical dilemma. Modern teaching philosophy seems to say that it’s my responsibility to ensure those students are in class – but common sense tells me that’s a dumb idea. Just having them there doesn’t solve their issues – and most of them are unlikely to be successful in a class of 38 students (when they all show up).

The fed-up and overwhelmed pragmatist in me says my job is to teach and if they choose to not make use of me then they’ll reap the consequences. But I can already envision the complaints that by letting them slide I’m perpetuating the problem.

Am I?

I don’t like to play the “it’s not in my contract” card, because I understand that we have a lot of expectations, both socially and in the workplace, that are not enumerated in our contracts… but seriously, who expects the restaurateur to reform his patrons? Does anybody hold the police officer accountable if the criminal reverts to crime? I fall back on the adage: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I really don’t believe it’s possible to MAKE students learn, to MAKE them value education – and certainly not when I only see them 60-70 minutes per day. Without being too pointed, I think it really falls upon the parents to be involved…

…but Mr. Bush says that I should have “No Child Left Behind,” and I’m left with the feeling that I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. I can’t MAKE the students learn (those who have been raised to not value education and to challenge any authority) and I get no love from the government who claim that all students are capable of reaching the same level… whether they have well-educated, wealthy parents in a district that gets $12,000 per year per student or they have an uneducated single-mom who works three jobs and can’t be around as much as she likes in a district that gets $6,000 per year per student. [I’d like to add the disclaimer that poverty or lack of available parenting don’t guarantee failure just like the converse doesn’t guarantee success… but I believe it’s a contributing factor.]

And if you claim that I CAN make these students learn, then prove it to me… try forcing me to learn Japanese when I refuse to show up to class most of the time, refuse to listen when I’m there, and do my best to push your buttons at every opportunity.

I suppose I’ll continue this train of thought at a later date… but for now, what do you think?


4 Responses to “Teaching and Ethics: A Teacher’s Obligations”

  1. Well, you and I have had numerous conversations about this, and I sympathize greatly. The younger the age the student, the more engagement and commitment it takes from the teacher. On the face of it, that carries no ethical implications, other than the inherent fact of cognitive development comes in stages that require less and less directed guidance.

    However, throw in the socialization of the student along with their education, and you have the recipe for class conflict: socially, economically, politically, and spiritually. Think about all the battles that are fought over public education, and it’s one of those four.

    Educators are caught in the middle because of the legal age of independence. Our society has made the commitment to “socialize” individuals to the age of 18. It’s Plato’s Republic. There are all kinds of ideas out there on the best way to do it; none of which has the single answer – the problem is too complex. Most of them are a mix of good and bad approaches, despite the number of dissertations arguing one over the other.

    The short of it is, America has one of the largest public education systems in the world. We are beholden to large-scale, open-access education, which, is the perfect formula for regression to the mean. You can stretch the rubber band all you want, but it still wants to go to the average state – mediocrity 101.

    The positive side is that we have a proportionally large kind-of educated population that gives a proportionally more effective workforce. Aside from our Puritan work ethic, I think that explains our low unemployment and large economy.

    Take heart that far more is accomplished in the world by many small steps of making a difference than one momentous step. Don’t get me wrong, the world needs singular individuals who create those defining moments of change for the rest of us. But it’s a good there’s only so many of those singular individuals, otherwise not much would get done.

    Buck up! Finish that Master’s and get beyond the magic line of 18.

  2. I appreciate your points and agree with just about everything, but what I’m mostly concerned with (which really touched off this post in the first place) is: “Would I be considered negligent in performing my job functions because I chose to let the screwheads fall through the cracks in order to better serve those who care?”

    All the rest was a rant that I too often allow myself to embark upon (though it is quite cathartic).

    And yes, I’m looking at doubling up on classes to help me finish faster… two at once has been tough, but it could save me about a year’s time!

  3. I can sympathize with you greatly! I pretty much agree with all you have said, just like the other commenter, I jut wish it was more structured where I work, a more structured environment.

  4. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both educative and engaging, and let me tell you,
    you have hit the nail on thee head. The issue is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.
    Now i’m very happy I found this in my search for something
    regarding this.

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